It would appear that it’s extremely difficult to be an artist unappreciated until years after his death. It seems even harder to be the most famous writer in the country when you’re alive – like Leo Tolstoy, about whom the movie The Last Station (2009) speaks.
Michael Hoffman’s movie tells several stories – about a genius writer, about a man with strong Christian anarchist and pacifistic beliefs, about dangerous misinterpretation of these ideals by followers creating a cult of the artist, and, most of all, about the (what was described by some as) most unhappy marriage in the literary history. After writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) developed a radical pacifist and anarchist philosophy and let his friend Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) take the control over the movement built around that philosophy.
It resulted in him rejecting his wealth and copyrights of his works which were supposed to become the legacy of people of Russia according to his last will. The main conflict between the author and his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) revolved around that issue. Sofya was a devoted wife, who spent 48 years with her husband, gave birth to 13 of his children, played a role of his secretary and a proof-reader, and still couldn’t convince Tolstoy that he should think reasonably, and take care of the well-being of their family instead of giving away all their wealth.
Chertkov played a significant role in fueling the conflict between the unhappy, yet loving couple. The story of last months of Tolstoy’s life and dramatic events taking place in his home is told from the point of view of a young Tolstoyan, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) who was hired to be his secretary.
He has a chance to observe Tolstoy’s incapability of controlling the movement, of trying to pursue his real ideals of love and enjoying his life in peace; he sees the great man whose beliefs are being misinterpreted and used against people closest to him. He also witnesses the tragedy of a woman who loves her husband more than anything, but is misunderstood and rejected by him and people around him.
Helen Mirren was rightly nominated for an Oscar for the role of Sofya – scenes played by her are brilliant and moving, although some may say that they are too theatrical. They are well kept in the tone and atmosphere of Tolstoy’s books though, so those who enjoys his literature, will likely enjoy this too.
Giamatti plays a role of cruel, deceiving personality well, however he spoils it by adding a bit too much of a comic touch to the character, while McAvoy doesn’t seem to be very visible or significant.
All in all, it is definitely Mirren’s movie. The story may not be the most exciting, but her acting makes it well worthwhile.